For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking about Kickstarter quite a bit recently. One reason is that I’ll be speaking publicly on the matter this Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival, on a panel called Comics by the People: Crowd-funding, Kickstarter, and the Future of Fan-supported Art (catchy, huh?). Here’s the full panel description:
"Self-publishing in indie comics has a strong tradition and now Kickstarter has been called the #2 comics publisher in the US. What is the future of comics publishing? What are the benefits and challenges of directly fan-funded models? Molly Crabapple (Week in Hell), Spike Trotman (Poorcraft) and Jamie Tanner (The Black Well) discuss what works, what hasn’t and what’s to come. Moderated by Meaghan O’Connell, Kickstarter.”
If you’re interested, it’s at 11:00 am in the Saint Francis Screening Room at 180 Remsen Street. I’ve been to the Book Festival in previous years, and it’s well worth attending. Lots of other great panels, too.
Another reason for recent Kickstarter rumination: I realized that as of last week, it has been three years since I launched my first Kickstarter project to fund the creation of a new graphic novel. For a long time I’ve meant to write at length about my experiences, so here goes. It’s incredibly daunting to try to express every thought I’ve had on this subject over the course of the last three years, so I’ll just dive in and see what comes up. I’ll start at the beginning and give a basic timeline of the project and talk about whatever seems relevant as we go along. If this sounds interesting to you, read on, and feel free to ask questions if you like (either in the comments or here). Otherwise - see you at the Book Fest?
Summer 2009: I forget which I saw first, a brief mention on a music news site (Pitchfork, probably?) of David Cross investing in some new “crowdfunding” (a term I had never heard before) website for artists, musicians, etc. or a mention of that same new website on Brokelyn. After seeing two mentions of this intriguing site within days of each other (might even have been on the same day?) I took a look at Kickstarter and was immediately fascinated.
As seems common among creative types I’ve spoken to, I soon started thinking of ways I could try to use the site for my own creative work. There’s a long tradition in comics (or is it a last resort?) of cartoonists selling their original artwork to supplement the money their comics bring in (and comics - at least the sort of comics I make - do not bring in much money at all, if any). Despite not really having any sort of a following as a cartoonist, I’d often daydreamed of selling a bunch of original art and using the proceeds to quit working full-time while I made a new book. This led me to the seed of my idea for a Kickstarter project - why not try to sell the original art from a comic I hadn’t even made yet, document its creation as it happened, and in the end people who had supported the project and followed along would have a physical piece of the comic they’d helped create.
This seemed like both a great idea and a mildly crazy one. I had yet to see anyone use Kickstarter for a comics-related project, so it felt like a big risk to put myself out there to a small and possibly uninterested audience. But I was frustrated with my job at the time, and with the fact that I’d barely made any new comics for two years (since the release of my first book, The Aviary), so I decided to try it. After a few nervous weeks of fussing over how to arrange the project, what rewards to offer, etc, and a few sleepless nights trying to make a video I wasn’t horribly embarrassed by, I launched my project on September 14, 2009…
It was overwhelming to see the positive responses after I sent out an email about the project. I think it took just over a week to reach the full funding goal, which I thought I might not even make in the then-maximum deadline of three months. (Digression - the always-wise folks at Kickstarter have since shortened the maximum time available for funding and recommend around 30 days, which in hindsight seems right to me. After that first month, things slowed down quite a bit - I think there was a bit of activity again towards the very end, but ultimately it just meant I’d need to wait that much longer until the funding period ended and I could begin the project in earnest.)
September - November 2009: While the funding period was still going, I tried to generate what interest I could. I was likely fortunate to have been an early user of Kickstarter (at least in the comics world) - I imagine a handful of people only came across the project because of its novelty. I posted updates every couple of weeks, including in-depth posts about the process of making some of the stories in The Aviary; posted notes, ideas, and sketches for the new book; joined twitter. I drew a new short comic to accompany an interview the fine people at Kickstarter were kind enough to run on their blog. I’m usually pretty private - I don’t make a habit of sharing what I’m working on while it’s still in progress, let alone when it’s completely unformed. But I viewed that as part of the experiment - open myself and my work up as much as possible, put it out there and see what happens.
November 14, 2009: Project officially funded. I started working on all the rewards I now needed to ship out to my backers. Note to future Kickstarter creators: don’t overlook this stage. This took quite a while, especially artwork commissions like this or this or this. Making and shipping rewards takes quite a bit of time, effort and money - depending on the specifics of your project, of course. Just something to keep in mind.
December 2009 - March 2010: Still working full-time at an office job, I continued making and shipping rewards and began writing the new comic. Kept posting updates, ideas for the book, sketches for the characters, etc. When I started to get a sense of how long the story would wind up being, I decided to draw it in 3 sections and post each as I finished them (I had originally wanted to do the whole thing in one long stretch and post the finished project all at once, but didn’t want to make my backers wait that long before they could read some actual comics).
April 2010: With the first part of the book completely written and planned out, I quit working full-time to focus on making the new graphic novel, now titled The Black Well. (Digression: One of the many potential benefits of using Kickstarter is that you can make something you wouldn’t have made if not for the direct support of your backers. The very title of the book that I wound up making came from a very generous backer, Andrew Blackwell (a fine author himself) pledging to become a character in the book. The more I worked on the story, the larger a role this character took on, and eventually lent his name to the book as a whole. While I likely would have made another comic book of some sort without Kickstarter, the fact that I did it this way led to this specific story becoming what it did. Endless potential here, and makes for a unique experience for backers.) I post updates detailing every stage of the process - thumbnails, pencils, various stages of inking, digital cleanup.
May 2010: The Black Well, Part 1: The Hound is finished and posted on a private website just for project backers. Again, I hadn’t really intended to serialize this story, but it wound up being a fun experience. In fact, the whole project became a sort of serial - I got as much if not more positive response to the process-related updates as I did to the actual comics produced. Looking back now, if I were to make a book of just the project updates, it would actually be even longer than the finished graphic novel. (Another digression: this is another sadly under-used part of the Kickstarter platform among comics projects, at least among many of the ones I’ve backed. Creators don’t seem to realize that the project updates can effectively be a blog that backers are quite literally invested in - they’ve paid to hear what you have to say about your work. So say something!)
June - August 2010: The process continues for the writing and drawing of Part 2: The Head, with detailed updates every few weeks. As would be the trend with each new part of the book, it wound up being more pages than the preceding segment, and took longer to write and draw.
September 2010: Started working on Part 3: The Cloud, which wound up being even longer than Part 2. Figuring out this part was the toughest yet, and the slowest as a result.
By this point, Kickstarter had grown tremendously and was fairly ubiquitous in most creative fields, including comics. Generally, a project creator finds backers through their existing audience, social networks, family, friends, colleagues, what have you, and that had largely been the case for my project. But I was curious to see if there was a potential audience of people drawn to Kickstarter who might be receptive to creators they weren’t already familiar with (I know I’ve backed some projects I just happened to find on there and was interested in, so why not?). So I started a second project, which was really just an extension of the first project, to allow anyone who might have missed the original funding deadline to come on board…
I set the funding goal extremely low - just $50 - since I wasn’t really trying to raise any specific amount of money; I just wanted to see if I could find any new readers. And it turned out I could - not a huge amount of people, but even a handful of new readers count for quite a bit in the niche realm of independent comics. The project wound up raising a little over $1000 in 30 days, which was certainly helpful, since the project had already taken longer than I’d initially been shooting for.
December 2010: Finished penciling the third and final section of the book: The Cloud. Around this time, I was offered another full-time job - I hadn’t been looking for one, but I knew I couldn’t make the Kickstarter funds and the occasional freelance work I managed to get last forever, and I’d wind up going back to work sometime the following year, anyway. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but New York is idiotically expensive (or perhaps I’m the idiot for continuing to live here). The job seemed like a pretty good one, and I figured since I would be finished penciling before I started working, I would be able to finish inking in my free time over the course of a month or two. This wound up being a big ol’ mistake. But more on that in a bit.
January 2011: Finished drawing The Black Well. Had the unusual experience of holding what wound up being a year’s work in one hand:
February 2011: Posted the scanned, cleaned-up Part 3 to the private website where backers could now read the entire new graphic novel they’d helped create. Though I still intended to further revise and polish the comic, this was effectively the end goal of the whole project.
Another note to future Kickstarter creators: Communicate what you intend to do as clearly as possible. I would later realize that a handful of backers misunderstood the ultimate goal, which was to create a graphic novel, not to physically print it or distribute it. Even though I mentioned this early in the project’s description:
"So what’s in it for you? Besides helping an artist "live his dream", as they say, however briefly? Well, quite a bit. You get to follow along as a graphic novel is made, from beginning to end. From ideas, influences and inspirations to research, sketching and writing to planning, penciling and inking. I’ll post weekly (at least) updates of the whole process for anyone who pledges at any amount. And any pledge amount will also get you access to a digital / online version of the finished book whenever it’s done - whether it’s ever published or not, you’ll get to read it."
Well, I couldn’t quite deliver on weekly updates (though I did update frequently and at length), but I did manage to live up to the rest of the goal, albeit over a longer timeline than the six months I initially hoped it would take me.
Further digression / on publishing & “publishing”: In the years since I started this project, the vast majority of comics projects on Kickstarter have basically been pre-orders for a physical print run of a book. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and I’ve backed a few of those projects myself. But it seems to me that Kickstarter has the potential to do quite a bit more than that. I feel like my own project was fairly unimaginative; that some more forward-thinking creator could find a new way to make comics using Kickstarter that I could never come up with. I imagine someone really inventive will amaze us all soon…
For me, creation was far more interesting (and far tougher to facilitate) than publication. I’d always dreamed of being some big-shot author who could get a large advance to live on while working on a new book. But this is extremely rare in the comics world, especially in the tiny strange niche of the sort of comics I make, and I’m about the furthest thing from a big-shot popular author you’re likely to find. I’d already been published, and had a wonderful experience with one of the absolute best independent comics publishers ever (thank you a million times to AdHouse - no better man in publishing than Chris Pitzer). But comics are a small-stakes field, and my work just doesn’t generate the kind of audience that would allow me to make it my living. Using Kickstarter allowed me to do this for a brief moment, and allowed me to connect very directly with an interested audience, however small.
I sometimes see articles about how Kickstarter has become one of the biggest publishers in comics. My immediate reaction is that Kickstarter is not a publisher at all - it’s a very flexible platform that can help facilitate publishing, among so many other things. But it could also be a sort of publishing platform in and of itself. I sort of used it this way, by using backers-only project updates to send my supporters to a private website where they could read the comic. I effectively published it just for them, digitally, using Kickstarter as a kind of go-between. But a creator could post whatever content they like in those backers-only updates, including an entire graphic novel, making the Kickstarter project itself the publication.
But I digress. Where was I?
February - June 2011: After a few weeks away from working on The Black Well, I re-read it and made revisions where necessary, mostly small tweaks, with some re-drawing to make all the art consistent. During this time, that job I wound up taking slowly revealed itself to be a lousy one, with increasingly long, stressful hours and an irrational, unpleasant boss. That sort of thing sucks the energy right out of you, hence the revisions taking a few months to complete. However, I also got some very good news during this time, when my wife and I found out she was pregnant with our first child (here she is a year later, wondering why her crazy parents dressed her so ridiculously). In late June, I finished the revisions and posted an update gently, pretentiously guiding my readers to accept the mysteries in the strange comic that came out of this project (David Lynch always says it better than I can).
After this point, the increasingly stressful job and preparations for having a baby grew to eclipse any work on comics for quite a while. With the exception of shipping out pages of original art to backers who’d pledged for them way back at the beginning of all this (Another digression for potential Kickstarter creators: Try to have as firm a grasp as you can on the rewards you’re offering, when you can deliver them, and be very thorough about getting addresses and other info from backers. I’m still waiting for some backers to respond to my multiple requests for their mailing addresses and which pages of art they want - a drawback I suppose of starting a project with as long-term and amorphous a goal as mine.), the project had pretty much ended. I had some ideas for how to release the book into the wild, but that drifted to the ol’ back burner as, well, life got in the way…
Summer 2012: A year later, with a new daughter and a new (thankfully much better) job, I’m asked to participate in the Kickstarter panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival (see waaaaay up at the top of this post if you can’t remember that far back (I don’t know if I can!)). I eagerly accept and start using the few scant hours I have after my daughter has gone to sleep to work on those ideas I had for releasing The Black Well into the world at large. I imagine I’ll talk a bit about this at the Book Fest this weekend, and if you happen to be there I’ll even have a few advance copies of one of the forms the comic will take (so mysterious). If you’ve made it this far, I have to assume you’re at least a little interested in all of this, so please come by the festival and say hello if you like. And for more news about this or any projects I might be involved in, you can sign up for my email newsletter right HERE.
Any questions? Feel free to ask. Thanks so much for reading this.